I delivered this address on August 26, 2008 to the 2008 Convocation of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. As I was preparing it, an article was appearing in First Things: “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline” by Joseph Bottum. In it, Mr. Bottum, the editor of First Things, outlined what he saw as the death of (mainline) Protestantism in our country. Moreover he accurately, in my opinion, showed how the Protestant Church stood on three legs: religion, democracy and capitalism.
With the collapse of the Protestant Church as we have known it, those three American ideas are now in jeopardy. I cannot argue with him. As much as some evangelicals might be tempted to disregard the article and say, “Well, good. The old liberal horse is finally dead,” I think that would be a foolish response. Why? Because just as the Church of England, in the 17th century, held together the extremes by creating a stable middle, so American Protestantism, at its height in the 1930s and perhaps 40s, held together the polarized parts of our religious landscape. As Diggers and Levellers and Ranters emerged from the disintegration of the 17th century Church of England, so we can expect similar things to happen again.
In the midst of this I would say that we evangelicals, the new Presbyterians and Methodists and Anglicans and Baptists and Congregationalists and other re-formed Protestants, have a glorious opportunity to bring the gospel to this nation, even in the apparent ruin and ruble of an old mainline now dead. For just as the early Church brought Christ to the pluralistic landscape of its day and prevailed, so can we, by God’s grace. And just as the Irish monks held together the old culture of literature and democracy in the fall of Rome, and became a human bridge over the competing, less powers seeking to fill the vacuum of a Rome-that-was-no-more, to create a new Christendom, so we must lay down our lives and our years and our gifts to do the same. But how?
In the Convocation message yesterday, I sought to warn, from God’s Word and from a historical-theological case study, how we could miss this unique, sovereignly given opportunity by becoming like the roaming false prophets of exiled Israel (and indeed I would say that this is exactly how the mainline “Protestantism died” in America), who preached out of their own spirits, rather than out of God’s Word. Finally, from 1 Timothy I seek to show how we can focus on the main things, avoid the wrong things, and bring about the supernatural goals of the Kingdom of Christ through, only, the supernatural means of Christ and His Word.
I humbly offer this Convocation address as another voice in the wilderness, if not a voice amidst the dirges sung over “The Death of Protestant America.”
Introduction to the Reading of the Scripture
In the days following Sept. 11 a sinister and quiet killer unmercifully gripped our nation already in shock by acts of terror committed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Traces of deadly poison began to show up in the most conspicuous places in the nation: in newsrooms, at the office of a television anchorman and even in the Capitol of our nation. A quiet killer was on the loose.
Today an even more sinister and quiet killer lurks in the most conspicuous places in our nation: in the pulpits of our land. In our day, many ministers of the gospel, and many Christians in general, have fallen. Most have fallen from sexual sin. Some have fallen due to a love of money. But a tragically innumerable sum, along with those who hear them, will fall due to this quiet killer of ministry. The One who would rid us of it and heal us from its effects reveals this killer for us in His Word.
Turn with me to the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God for the diagnosis of this urgent situation and the divine treatment offered.
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: ‘Hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel.”
1 Timothy 4:4-16
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever (
On this Convocation 2008, I want to bring a message of warning and of hope for our seminary community, which I am entitling, “Jackals Among Ruins.”
Introduction to the Sermon
The quiet killer of the prophets of old who were judged by God was, according to Ezekiel, their choice of curriculum. They taught what was in their own spirit. Thus the people were being fed ideas and being given images that were formed not from the mind of God but from that place that Calvin called the “factory of idols,” the mind of man without God. Thus they were, according to Ezekiel, jackals among ruins. These were the figures of dog-like creatures, alone, separated from the blessing of God and His Word, and laughing and barking and foaming at the mouth over the carcass of a kingdom which was no more. Like savage beasts, they ripped the last vestiges of men’s souls through teachings that came not from heaven but from earth. This is a devastating image of the false prophets. Thus Calvin would write of this episode in Israel’s history, referring to the jackals also as foxes: “But when the Israelites were wandering exiles, and attention to the law no longer flourished among them, it came to pass that foxes, meaning their false prophets, easily entered.”
One can only imagine Ezekiel, who began his book by declaring that it was “the thirtieth year,” no doubt referring to the year that would have begun service as a priest, feeling the pain of all of this. How much better it would have been if the people were being fed the Word of God, worshiping in the familiar courts of the temple of God. But it was also the “fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin,” who was taken by Nebuchadnezzar’s unstoppable forces in 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:8-12).
Thus, Ezekiel, instead of serving God in the temple at the time of his ordination, instead of serving God’s proposes in the place where God’s presence was solemnly commemorated, sat with the other prisoners in exile, along an irrigation canal southeast of Babylon called the Chebar, far from the city called holy. But as he would learn he was not far from God. God came to Him in a whirlwind. And God ordained him to be a prophet to the rebellious people of Israel. This holy man of God had a “Word from Another World” as Robert L. Reymond has said. He spoke that Word, not his Word but God’s, not only to the rebellious people-at-large, but specifically to the beastly preachers of Israel. They had forfeited their ministries by preaching what they wanted, what arose from their own spirits, their causes, not God’s.
So, too, St. Paul, in his epistle to Pastor Timothy, who was to carry on the church planting and church revitalization work at Ephesus, warned against the preachers who would “depart from the faith.” In doing so the great apostle warned Timothy to having nothing to do with “irreverent, silly myths.” What were these? They were surely the Judaizing myths of a rabbinic religion that had nothing to do with the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but were man-made impositions on the consciences of human beings, which brought Babylonian-like bondage, not freedom and new life. The killer of truth in Ephesus would not be the public scandals involving the deacon running off with the director of music’s wife, but irreverent rabbis running off with their mouths! The quiet killer of Ephesus would be preachers who were, if we were to take just the opposite of Paul’s warnings, untrained in godliness (verse 8), lazy in the ministry (verse 9), and whose hope was set on things other than the “living God,” the Savior Jesus Christ (verse 10).
The quiet killer of ministry is preaching and teaching the things that are not of God and His Word. The quiet killer of ministry is putting our efforts into causes and movements that do not promote what saves people. When we have neglected the ordinary means of grace,?Word, Sacrament and Prayer, then our churches be weakened, the unconverted neglected and the Great Commission ignored. In short, our people will fall into ruin. The leaders of such churches will become like jackals among those ruins.
Few would deny that Western secularized Europe, Britain and–sadly we must add–the United States, look like the spiritual ruins of a bygone faith. Today we know of scandals and scandalous spiritual leaders who are jackals among the ruins.
Some of us might call the jackals antinomianism or legalism, or perhaps Mormonism or the new Mysticism, or, following Paul, who named Hymenaeus and Philetus as famous heretics. We might call the jackals by more personal names like Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Taze Russell or Jim Jones. And this would be right, I think. But could such religious beasts arise from our kind? Could these roaming hounds of Hell begin to sniff out human souls in evangelical seminaries? If so could they then reproduce their pups and let them lose in our day to bay senseless words in the pulpits of our land, and wander upon the already Babylonian-like spiritual landscape of our nation?
It happened in the Golden age. When was that? Many of us in the Reformed and Presbyterian faith think of 17th century-English Puritanism as the golden age of Christianity. And in many ways it most certainly was! It was the day of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, who produced in their 1163 numbered sessions what are surely the crowning confessional statements of the Word of God since the days of the Apostles: The Westminster Confession of Faith, a Larger Catechism and a Shorter Catechism, a Directory for Public Worship, as well as the lesser studied Form of Government. It was not only their doctrine but also their lives that would cause us to agree with the saintly Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843): “Oh for the grace of the Westminster divines to be poured out upon this generation of lesser men.”
This was the time of Richard Baxter (1615-1691) at Kidderminster and John Owen (1616-1683) at Oxford. This was the productive time when Emmanuel College at Cambridge was a veritable factory of Puritan divines whose hearts and minds were aflame with the glories of Christ and His Word. The doctrines of grace flowed like the oil over Aaron’s beard and could be heard in the preaching of Scots like Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), Welshmen like Christopher Love (1618-1651), and Englishmen like John Bunyan (1628-1688), as well as the Anglican rector of Lavenham, William Gurnall (1617-1679).
Great books were written in those days. Great men and women of prayer emerged in those days. But as the barnacles of Hell would attach themselves beneath the great gospel ship that sailed through Northampton in the Great Awakening in New England during Jonathan Edward’s day, so, too, they attached themselves to the edges of the golden 1640s of Puritan ascendancy in Westminster.
We remember the glaring examples of false teachers like the infamous Laud. Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645), in the opinion of Patrick Collinson, was “the greatest calamity ever visited upon the Church of England.” We remember that the Church of England was removed, and while the Presbyterian government that replaced it might be preferable to many of us, the Church of England formed an institution that held together the “center” of Reformed Christianity in that day.
Thus, as the center collapsed, the fringes were set free. Seventeenth Century Puritanism came into ascendancy as sectarian groups such as the Quakers, the Levelers, the Ranters, the Diggers and other mystical, heretical groups began to emerge. These groups were usually either neo Montanists, advocating extra-biblical, continuing revelation, which led them into heretical claims about the Trinity or the end times, or they were anarchists, who used the kingship of Jesus to advocate the overthrow of all governments. It is not an overstatement to say these groups came upon the land like locusts.
In the era when the unsurpassed Westminster theology was being taught, heresy and anarchy seemed unstoppable. Out of this mixed-up mess of false teaching and pristine biblical theology came a man named Vavasor Powell. This Welshman was possessed of natural gifts as a teacher. An Oxford man, this former schoolmaster was also gifted in leadership and vision. When he was converted under the preaching of the godly Walter Craddock (1610-1659) and the writings of Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) and William Perkins (1558-1602), he began an itinerant ministry that led him ultimately to becoming rector at Holy Trinity in Dartford. There he also became a chaplain to Parliament during the English Civil War.
When the Westminster divines set up a committee to study how to get the gospel to Wales and to do what we would call “church planting” the committee looked to this extraordinarily gifted man, Vavasor Powell. The committee met on Sept. 11, Session 704, and 18 divines signed Powell’s certificate to preach in Wales. The number included no less than Jeremiah Burroughs (1600-1646), whose devotional works on contentment and worship rank as first class contributions to the Church from this era as well as Powell’s fellow Welshman, the famous Presbyterian pastor of St. Lawrence Jewry in London, Christopher Love (1618-1651). So Powell was sent out by the Assembly to do both church planting and revitalization in Wales.
But alas, as he was separated from the orthodox Presbytery of London and set free to earn the title of “the metropolitan of Wales,” Mr. Powell became influenced by the sectarian movements of his day. The one association that most scholars have linked him to was the Fifth Monarchy Movement. This movement believed that they were fulfilling the cause of Christ by supporting anarchy, removing all human governments, and thus ushering in Daniel’s fifth and final kingdom, or monarchy, of Jesus Christ Himself. They were a millenarian group whose theology became mixed up in politics, always a dangerous and combustible mixture. And if Powell wasn’t one of them, Powell was friendly to them; of that there can be no doubt. Indeed, on one of his return trips to London, when he was filling the pulpit at Blackfriars Church, the pulpit of the late, venerable William Gouge (1575-1653), the oldest member of the Westminster Assembly when they convened, Powell gave a sermon. It was Dec. 16, 1653, the day that Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was named Lord Protector of all of the British Isles. Vavasor Powell preached to old Mr. Gouge’s congregation and asked them to go home and ask themselves if they wanted Jesus Chris to rule over them or Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell did not take that comment very well and Powell was locked up immediately. So here was a man who would debate the heretics of the day, who championed high Calvinism against Arminians of the day, who was so popular that Parliament requested his services as a preacher on several occasions, who was so gifted that he caught the attention of men like John Owen, who wrote the preface to one of Powell’s books. Yet he became involved with the fringe political movements of his day, and began to focus on anarchist, radical millenarian ideas, that pitted him against his own allies. Vavasor Powell forfeited his ministry. He was locked up by the Puritans. When Charles the Second returned he released a number of prisoners but considered Powell so dangerous to the populace that he left him there. And Powell grew sick in prison.
There in the horrible conditions of the Fleet Street Prison, Vavasor Powell the fiery evangelist and radical millenarian, returned, through the sanctifying powers of a cell and time alone with God and His Word, to become a pastor. It was said of him that he transformed his cell into an academy and his guards into parishioners who were catechized by Powell and sat under his preaching each Lord’s Day. Indeed, he became so pastoral in his outlook and behavior that the officials let this once dangerous lion of Wales out each Sunday to preach in the streets of London. He wrote beautiful letters to the little churches in Wales, some of which he had founded. He wrote some marvelous hymns and devotional books, one of which, Bird in a Cage Chirping, contains remarkably tender and pastoral passages on Christian suffering.
In short, this man forfeited the years of his ministry in fringe groups only to recover his ministry in the last years of his life. He died in his cell in 1670 and was buried in Bunhill Fields Cemetery in London in what is now an unmarked grave. I went there and remember reconstructing the day of his funeral service, and with the help of the cemetery worker, located the place where his remains lay. I will never forget the words of that worker, as the sun sank low and the shadows fell upon the ancient burial grounds in old London. This fellow said, in unmistakable Cockney, “I ’ave no idea why ye would want to look fer this ’ere bloat; this ground is filled with nothing but rebels and the dregs of society who couldn’t get a proper burial.” As he said that to me, I looked over his shoulder to see the tomb of John Bunyan. Over his other shoulder I saw the tomb of Susannah Wesley. “Yes,” I said, “but I suspect this whole cemetery will erupt with glorified saints on the day when Christ comes again.” He shook his head over what I am certain he thought was a very confused Yank, and we parted.
And thus Powell’s legacy is mixed. He was the Puritan prophet of Wales and the anarchist preacher and prisoner. He was in a sense a Jackal Among Ruins, who forfeited his ministry on the altar of his own bad ideas. But by God’s grace, he became a pastor again.
How many in our generation have been equally tricked into laying aside the divinely ordained means of grace for human concocted means that can never save a soul, much less build a church? There are jackals among ruins who need to repent. But how many times have I felt in recent days that my work was so urgent that I skipped prayer in order to think through some problem or challenge? Sometimes seminary presidents look not to God’s Word but to our own resources for help. This, too, will save neither ourselves nor our hearers.
I think about these passages today, and the illustration of the life of a preacher who believed and preached the theology and faith of Westminster, and I come away with two words to charge us with today:
1. Focus: Focus your ministry on the Word of God, not this movement or that movement, or political involvement or speculative theological ideas or academic or professional peer groups. As we would learn from reading about the false prophets in Ezekiel, we must not “follow our own spirit” or our own vision, but God’s. Moreover, we must be prepared to announce the truth of Christ and His gospel to the whole world, and this was the indictment of the Lord for Israel:
But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand (
This is a most solemn warning to seminarians and ministers as well as to all of God’s people. To be given the Word of God is a great responsibility that involves not only our own souls but also the souls of all of those who would hear us.
For our seminary, let us focus on the central vision of the coming Kingdom of God and the need to pray for laborers for God’s harvest. Let us focus on preparing men for the pastorate and men and women to become missionaries and other Christian leaders. In all things let us focus on doing it with a sound methodology given to us in the Word of God, of faithful men teaching faithful men who will be able to teach others also. We must see ourselves as a mission of Christ, the repository of 2,000 years of study and preaching invested in our godly faculty, and being entrusted to a rising generation of pastors and missionaries who will join in the single minded work of declaring the Word of the Lord to the entire earth, from the sea to the city. Focus.
2. Avoid: St. Paul teaches that we must avoid the irreverent, silly myths that sometimes attach themselves to the true, good old ship of the gospel. As we make our way through a world where truth and error are often being mixed, where those who would seek to minister to people in post modernity may be prone to become one with the bad ideas they intended at first to confront, or those who would seek to recover the good traditions of the past become entangled in ritualism which ruined them, we must be all the more prayerful.
There are some who have preached the gospel of Christ faithfully through dependence upon the Word, Sacrament and Prayer, who turned to preach out of the poison well of their ideas or the ideas of others. They not only forfeit their ministries, they become “jackals among ruins.”
Remember the words of Paul:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (
As I begin my time with you as your president and as the newest faculty member, I pray that we will remember that, as Charles Hodge would tell his new students at old Princeton, “you will learn nothing new here.” He meant that his students would come upon no novel ideas, but only the faith of the Reformers. You will, we pray, learn nothing new here, unless you come to taste the newness of the truth of the gospel fresh upon your soul. I do pray that you will receive from our teaching of the Word God the essential teachings that will help you to stand and preach, teach and minister faithfully. I pray that we will recommit our lives today to the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God, to dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and to focusing on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In all of this, I pray for you, a prayer that was prayed over me when I began seminary and a prayer I felt was answered in that season of ministry where you are: that you who are beginning your studies here at RTS Charlotte will love Jesus Christ more at the conclusion of your studies than at the beginning. I pray that our seminary will be used of God to train up shepherds of Christ who will scatter the jackals among ruins and raise the cross of the Savior. I pray that all who look upon the One on that cross and repent of their sins, trusting in the finished work of Christ alone, will be saved.
This sermon was preached at the Convocation at RTS Charlotte, 2008.
Read The Death of Protestant America by John Piper for his good thoughts on our culture.
Brown, Louise Fargo. The Political Activities of the Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men in England During the Interregnum. New York,: B. Franklin, 1964.
Burroughs, Jeremiah, and Don Kistler. Gospel Worship, or, the Right Manner of Sanctifying the Name of God in General: And Particularly in These Three Great Ordinances : 1. Hearing the Word, 2. Receiving the Lord’s Supper, 3. Prayer. Orlando, FL: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2006.
Burroughs, Jeremiah, and Pre-1801 Imprint Collection (Library of Congress). The Rare Iewel of Christian Contentment. London,: Printed by P. Cole, 1652.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, “Ezekiel 13.1-4” Accordance Bible Software 8.02, 1565 [cited August 14 2008].
Capp, B.S. The Fifth Monarchy Men; a Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism. London: Faber, 1972.
Collinson, Patrick. The Elizabethan Puritan Movement. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1990.
Hill, Christopher. The English Revolution, 1640 / Christopher Hill. 3rd ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955.
—. The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. New York,: Viking Press, 1972.
Kistler, Don. A Spectacle Unto God: The Life and Death of Christopher Love (1618-1651). Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994.
Love, Christopher. The Works of Christopher Love. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995.
Milton, Michael A. “The Application of the Theology of the Westminster Assembly in the Ministry of the Welsh Puritan, Vavasor Powell (1617-1670).” Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Wales, 1998.
Murray, Iain. “Robert Murrary M’cheyne: Minister of St. Peter’s, Dundee, 1836 – 1843.” [Internet]. [cited August 13 2008]. Available from http://web.ukonline.co.uk/d.haslam/mccheyne/ihmurray.htm.
Powell, Vavasor. Bird in the Cage? Chirping Four Distinct Notes to His Consorts Abroad. 1. Of Consideration, Counsel, and Consolation. Ii. Of Experiences and Observations Gathered in Affliction, and First Intended Only for Private Use. Iii. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, in the Ordinary Measure of Singing Psalms. Iv. A True Christians Spiritual Pilgrimage, Setting Forth His Afflicted and Consolatory State in Another Metre. And as a Preface Hereto, an Epistle to the Welsh Churches, and a Brief Narrative of the Former Propagation, and Late Restriction of the Gospel, (and the True Preachers and Professors Thereof) in Wales. And a Short Vindication of the Author and Others, from the Calumniation of Their Adversaries Concerning the Same. London: Printed, for L.C. at the next shop to Popes-head Alley, on the West-side in Cornhil, 1661.
—. An Useful Concordance to the Holy Bible. With the Various Acceptations Contained in the Scriptures, and Marks to Distinguish Commands, Promises, and Threatening; and a Collection of Similes and Synonymous Phrases. Also the Titles and Appellations Given to Christ and the Church. Designed to Accompany the Rev. R. Scott’s Family Bible, or Any Other in Quarto. By the Rev. Vavasor Powell. Recommended by the Rev. John Owen, D.D. Third ed. London: Bellamy and Robarts, 1792.
Rogers, John, and Edward Rogers. Some Account of the Life and Opinions of a Fifth-Monarchy-Man. London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1867.
Rogers, P. G. The Fifth Monarchy Men. London, New York [etc.]: Oxford U.P., 1966.
Copyright © 2008 Michael A. Milton